Human-caused climate change is one of the nastiest problems of our era. It has so many characteristics that make it seem intractable. Mitigating climate change will be expensive and will require collective action around the globe, even while the impacts of climate change—while very real—remain difficult to precisely quantify due to the complexity of both the climate system and the economies affected by it.
I have the privilege to work at a university where many minds in many disciplines are engaged in trying to understand and address this looming problem. Each discipline tends to put its own spin on the nature of the problem and how we need to address it. At the risk of offending all of them, I here propose a completely unscientific classification of “climate action personality types.” Here’s to their all working together!
Characteristic Insight: Climate change is real and it is going to hurt—a lot.
Characteristic Blind Spot: This doesn’t mean people will do anything about it.
It is not surprising that the atmospheric scientists who work on modeling the climate were among the first to become very alarmed by what they were finding. And then they became equally alarmed that humanity has thus far done little in response to their findings. This has quite understandably spurred some scientists to move into advocacy and some to pursue solution finding efforts outside of their native disciplines.
Many scientists around the world have given very selflessly of their time to serve on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has thrust them into the painful political debates that are an inescapable part of trying to produce a solid scientific document that governments will also sign off on. Scientists have been forced to think about how to communicate the scientific process to the broader public: oversimplify, and risk a loss of credibility when oversimplifications are called out; or try to communicate the reality that ongoing dissent on specifics is a healthy part of science and does not in any way negate the broad consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real and serious.
Characteristic Insight: International collective action on climate is brutally difficult to bring about.
Characteristic Blind Spot: Change can sometimes happen more quickly than expected.
Political scientists remind us that global policy change is not implemented by rational, technocratic overlords. Rather, it comes from alignments of interests. When interests aren’t aligned, climate policy initiatives are dead in the water. Policy architects can look for leverage points and synergies, but they can’t make governments do things they fundamentally don’t want to do. In attempting to establish a top-down global regime for climate policy, the Kyoto Protocol failed to recognize the diversity of interests, capabilities, and motivations among countries when it comes to climate change. Current policy efforts appear to be a bit more pragmatic in this regard.
The political scientist’s lens of interest group politics is also extremely useful for understanding why the climate-oriented policies we do enact are often so much less efficient than the ones we could enact. (See “The Economist” below.)
At the same time, political scientists run the risk of becoming so caught up in the roadblocks in existing political systems that they underestimate the possibility that political sentiment could change more rapidly than expected.
Characteristic Insight: We can do this much more cheaply than we actually are.
Characteristic Blind Spot: There are political reasons why we don’t do things the cheap way.
Economists, by and large, point to carbon pricing as the sine qua non of climate policy. And, basically, they are right. If we want to get serious about climate change, the right way to do it is to price the negative externalities of greenhouse gas emissions into our daily transactions. That is the route to getting the largest greenhouse gas emissions reduction for a given willingness to spend on the part of society.
Unfortunately, there are political reasons why we end up with vastly more expensive climate mitigation policies in reality. While economists prize transparency, politicians prize opacity. Even if the costs of a certain subsidy are much higher per ton of greenhouse gas abated than, say, a carbon tax, the subsidy may be politically acceptable—even welcomed—if the cost is hidden and diffused widely among taxpayers or electricity ratepayers. Mention even the tiniest tax, on the other hand, and you may be pilloried by voters, even as we fail to bat an eye at, say, wild gyrations in gasoline prices from other sources.
The economists who are most effective in the climate policy realm combine rigor in economic thinking with a hardheaded understanding of the political process.
Characteristic Insight: Jobs and prosperity matter.
Characteristic Blind Spot: Well-designed, flexible regulation is the friend, not the enemy, of business.
Businesspeople in the energy industry may be excused for feeling some dismay over being made into the “bad guys” while providing a product that everyone wants and jobs that are the lifeblood of the economy. The reality is that most of us prioritize our prosperity and that of our families over the seemingly less immediate risks of climate change. Those of us getting on okay in life are generally those with the greatest luxury to worry about climate change—though it is also undeniable that the poor around the world will be those who suffer the most from its effects.
At the same time, it helps no one to deny the existence of climate change or blindly fight regulations that disrupt the status quo, as some less-than-enlightened businesses have done. As an example, certain oil industry lobby groups in California have been quite disingenuous in exaggerating the likely effect on gasoline prices of the inclusion of refined fuels within the state’s cap-and-trade program.
Once flexible environmental regulations are in place, businesses invariably do exactly what they are so good at, reducing the costs of compliance through innovation. Good enterprises thrive on change. But until laws are passed, the less competent or forward-thinking businesses have an unhelpful tendency to fight even well-conceived environmental rules.
Characteristic Insight: We can make anything.
Characteristic Blind Spot: Policy problems don’t work like engineering problems.
Full disclosure: I was trained as an engineer. And so whenever I see a “technical feasibility study” about whether, say, we have the technical capability to generate all of America’s energy with wind and solar or provide needed lighting to a rural African village with a renewable-energy-based microgrid, I roll my eyes. The correct answer is always “Yes!” A good engineer knows that she can make just about anything work. The relevant questions are how much something costs relative to alternatives, whether people actually want the product or service being provided, and whether a business model can sustain itself around the particular engineering innovation.
If we are going to deal successfully with climate change, we are going to need all the engineering talent we can muster. Basic research and development efforts should be supported to a much greater degree by our government. But the world is not a technocracy. Many of the barriers to progress on climate change solutions have more to do with political, market, and business realities than availability of technology per se. Public policy research is about understanding this context in order to design low cost and politically acceptable strategies to address climate change; it is not about somehow steamrolling obstacles to the wide use of one’s favorite technology.
Characteristic Insight: We don’t have to do things the same way the last generation did.
Characteristic Blind Spot: There are reasons (besides “bad people”) why things work the way they do.
On campus, students bring to the problem of climate change great passion and the belief that anything is possible. This energy is absolutely essential. A key function of a university education is to help set this energy into context, to teach a bit more about why the world is the way it is so that the next generation can tackle the right issues to bring it closer to how it should be. At the same time, when we suggest to students that something is impossible, we should bear in mind that we may be the ones who are wrong.
Student campaigns are pressuring universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels. These campaigns show both the strength and the weakness of the idealistic impulse. On the one hand, the students involved are absolutely right that the current pace of progress on climate action is unacceptable. If student activism convinces the next generation—across the political spectrum—that politicians need to act, the dialogue on climate change may look very different in a decade from how it looks today. On the other hand, using fossil fuels to generate energy is not a clear-cut moral case like a previous divestment target, apartheid in South Africa. Burning fossil fuels has positive and negative impacts, and we are all complicit in the activity. The risk of lifting the policy debate onto the moral plane is that it risks polarizing the issue and denying the insights of many of the other “climate action personalities” described here.